From the Seth Boyden PTA:
Now in its third consecutive year at Seth Boyden Elementary, an innovative stepping residency program has helped students find their power and joy while connecting to Black history. The residency has combined instruction in the physical movement of stepping, long performed at historically Black Colleges and Universities by historically African American fraternities and sororities, with instruction in the history of the art form and its importance in Black culture. The program was once again made possible through a generous grant from the prestigious Artists in Education Residency Grant Program (AIE).
Seth Boyden’s grant application for the Artists in Education residency program, valued at over $11,000, was accepted in June 2021. The very talented professional stepping artist Maxine Lyle, founder of the renowned troupe Soul Steps, conducted workshops for fourth-grade students from October through December 2022. An additional Dance to Learn Residency Grant supported workshops for Seth Boyden’s “Junior Steppers”—third graders, also with Maxine Lyle. The students’ hard work culminated in performances for classmates, teachers, and parents in mid-December 2022.
In each residency’s workshops, students learned and reviewed a variety of stepping movements and eventually created their own unique stepping performance. Ms. Lyle supplemented the lessons with frequent history discussions, such as the precursors of stepping in South African gumboot dancing. She also taught the students about Historically Black Colleges and Universities and how stepping is an important part of those schools’ culture of empowerment. These discussions raised issues of social justice that relate to the history of stepping. To build on this foundation, residency 4th grade students recently took a field trip to Seton Hall University to see a step show performed by Historically Black Greek-Letter Organizations from both Seton Hall and Kean University.
Each Seth Boyden residency workshop ended with the students rising together and saying in unison, “Hear me. See me. Feel me. I have power!” Power was certainly conveyed in the movement of the students performing together in their two December shows, as was a sense of connection. The Columbia High School Infinite Step team opened and closed the show as special guests and took questions from the residency students afterwards.
This year has been Ms. Lyle’s second one as resident artist at Seth Boyden. “After two years,” she says, “I feel like we’ve really become a step family.” Ms. Lyle has explained that the feelings of togetherness are part of the goal, especially for students living through difficult times. “With stepping you are tapping into other people doing the same rhythms, and you know you are not alone—you are part of a community. During hard times, the Jim Crow years, stepping was an important reminder that came out of a need to know you were not alone. The rhythm tells you that.”
The program is a perfect fit for Seth Boyden, which for the past 20+ years has served as a demonstration school introducing innovative approaches to learning based on honoring and supporting multiple intelligences. The school is applying for another year of AIE funding in the hopes of continuing the program in 2023-24 and becoming established as a “stepping school.” Seth Boyden is already expanding its stepping culture by offering a stepping club as an after-school extracurricular activity through the district’s “Beyond the Bell” program this spring. Two Columbia High School students from the Infinite Step Team are leading the course and Seth Boyden 4th grade teacher Shella Meisdor-Villard is teaching it.
Seth Boyden Principal Shannon Glander, Assistant Principal Sheila Murphy, and Ms. Mesidor-Villard form part of the Steering Committee for the grant, as does alum parent Alison Poe. The Seth Boyden PTA supports the residency each year with T-shirts for the performers and by creating documentation of the workshops, including a video by documentary filmmaker Erin Harper. Seth Boyden art teacher Laura Kruglinski worked with fourth-grade students to create the residency T-shirt graphic and PTA “VP of Happiness” Anna Dunbar coordinated all aspects of the show to ensure a successful, memorable event for the kids and their families.
The Artists in Education Residency Grant Program is a co-sponsored project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Young Audiences for Learning New Jersey & Eastern PA. It is carried out in partnership with regional partners Appel Farm Arts & Music Campus, Count Basie Center for the Arts, and Morris Arts. The third graders’ Dance to Learn Residency Grant “Junior Steppers” is a project of Dance New Jersey and Young Audiences Arts for Learning.
Steering Committee member Poe, who has managed the application for the stepping grant since the program’s inception, said, “It’s deeply inspiring to see how the AIE’s grant has helped to spark support from other organizations leading to new initiatives, like the third-grade ‘Junior Steppers’ program, the field trip to Seton Hall. We are so grateful to the AIE for believing in our school’s vision and for funding it to grow into something larger and more impactful in our community than we could have even imagined when we started three years ago.